A few days ago, Apple announced its pick of the Best Apps of 2014. Log onto your iTunes app store to see the top choices for your region. Making it onto this list, or onto others like the Best New Apps or Top Paid Apps, is becoming increasingly difficult. As of June this year, the iTunes app store had 1.2 million apps; overall, 75 billion applications had been downloaded since launch; and users were visiting the store 300 million times per week (data via TechCrunch).
So what makes a good mobile app? What are the common elements we can see across the best apps as chosen by Apple? Here are four lessons we can learn from Apple’s list of Best Apps 2014:
1. Do one thing and do it well
The most successful apps either solve a problem, or entertain. If you’re trying to do too much at the same time, you’ll most likely end up doing neither (I refer you to the Fat Daddy video fiasco on The Apprentice). Once you’ve chosen your focus, make it the best that it can be, with great visuals and user experience. The best apps list is full of examples that do that one simple thing and do it well: BBC Weather, Top10 – Hotels (does what it says on the tin), Post-it Plus (allows you to capture and organise your notes from that brainstorming session)…
When it comes to entertainment, games have always done well in the app store. The 2014 winner is Threes!, an addictive game based on a very simple 4 x 4 number grid and a swiping motion. Another game on the list, Ruzzle Adventure, has a similarly simple grid and swipe action but with letters instead of numbers. You don’t have to design the most epic of all adventure games to become popular, in fact, the simplest games are the ones that take over and have the biggest impact on productivity (i.e. by distracting workers worldwide away from their work).
2. Design for the platform and make it intuitive
Uber, the ever more popular app that lets you order a car more quickly and cheaply than a taxi, offers ‘one tap to ride’. Its functionality is simple and requires no long instruction manual: just click ‘get an uber’. An intuitive user interface ensures a fast adoption rate of your app, so that it doesn’t become one of the many million apps that are downloaded and then abandoned. A single-minded focus on the core function of the app will make it easy to use on a (usually small) smartphone screen.
Photo applications do this very well, and photo or video editing apps appear many times in Apple’s list, including the UK winner of best app overall, Replay Video Editor. Such apps are all designed specifically for the device and serve to leverage and optimise its built-in camera functionality, allowing the user to create beautiful images and videos at the touch of a few buttons and without any technical expertise. Others on the list: Camu (apply filters, add text and effects, make collages), Tunepics (add music, weather and emotions to your photos), Fly video editor, Hyperlapse, Litely, Afterlight, Cinamatic…
3. Build virality into the app itself
One new social platform included in Apple’s list is Storehouse, a ‘visual storytelling’ app. Intrinsically social apps are more likely to spread and become popular: think of Whatsapp, Instagram – their value grows the more people use them. Another more functional example on the list is AirBnB: all users benefit as the database of hosts and guests using the app (or the site) grows.
Another way to increase virality, of course, is to make sharing easy. Integrate your app with existing networks to leverage their scale; let your users post their creations, articles, results to Facebook, Twitter, or other relevant social networks; offer incentives for inviting their friends. Make virality a core part of the app’s functionality.
4. Give your users a reason to come back
Push notifications can be unwelcome when they are from an app that you don’t need to use every day; make sure you offer your users an incentive to come back the next day. Runtastic Me monitors your daily steps and activities, letting you set yourself goals and challenges that make you motivated to return. Peak Brain Training similarly sets training goals and tracks your performance over time.
Fresh content is another great way to encourage your users to return – The Guardian, Yahoo News Digest and BBC Sport are among Apple’s highlighted apps, by their very nature providing updated content on a more-than-daily basis. Users return in order to get the latest news. Ultimately, going back to the first point, people will come back if an app is incredibly useful or incredibly entertaining. What will make users return to your app again and again?
So did your favourite apps of 2014 make it onto the list? What makes you come back to an app again and again? Share your insights in the comments below.